Sovereignty? Maybe it’s just a family affair

Published on February 23, 2019

This piece was sent in by George Stevenson.


One of the most potent slogans from the 2016 Leave campaign was ‘Take Back Control’. Somehow, it promised a future where free British citizens (or subjects, perhaps), would control their own futures, without any form of external interference

2½ years later, and the reality looks rather different. But sovereignty still exerts a powerful pull; previous London4Europe blogs have highlighted that this may have been a factor in the votes of voters across the generally affluent South East of England, where complaints about ‘left behind’ communities may have been less prevalent

This idea of having control over our own affairs seems to be very deep rooted. At an individual level, most of us will remember resentments as children about being told to do something we didn’t want to do, and this may last into adulthood as well. As the parent of a 4-year old, I’m acutely conscious of the resistance (or stubbornness) of children if they don’t want to do something. Being without someone telling you what to do is seductive goal for many teenagers

At the level of countries or societies, freedom from an overbearing ruler, and having control over your own affairs, is a recurring theme. From ‘no taxation without representation’ prior to the American War of Independence, through the French Revolution, the emergence of new countries from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, the dismantling of the European empires in the years after the Second World War, to the collapse of communism in Central & Eastern Europe in 1989, self-determination for a people or a country has been a powerful, siren image.

So we shouldn’t dismiss this as an argument for Leave voters. Even pointing out that it’s the quality of government that’s important, not whether or not we have ‘full ‘control’ probably won’t cut much ice. Our parents are (mostly) benign, and want what’s best for us, but that doesn’t prevent us from sometimes resenting what they’re telling us to do.

But of course, this isn’t the whole story; previous blogs have talked about the benefits of pooling sovereignty. Taken to its extreme, the only situation where we would be free of any external interference would be if we all lived by ourselves, self-supporting and self-sufficient. Whilst this may appeal to a small number of people (and I will admit sometimes appeals to me when I am feeling fed up with that part of humanity which annoys me), it’s unlikely to appeal to many- hermits after all, are fairly rare. In any case, it’s hardly a way to organise any sort of society, where some things are better provided communally

So most of us ‘pool’ our individual sovereignty to some extent. We have partners and wider families, and groups of friends. Even if we live by ourselves, we may work as part of a team, and in a wider group of employees, and we live as part of local communities and of a particular country. The point of this is not to make the case for some form of utopian communal living, but more to highlight that whilst we give up some independence, the benefits usually outweigh this small disadvantage. Living with other people will always occasionally be annoying (as Jean-Paul Satre said ‘Hell is other people’), and of course we won’t always get our own way, and will need to compromise. But the benefits, in terms of companionship and all the other good things about being with someone will more than make up for this. We might virulently disagree with our government’s policies, but we’d prefer some government to no government. Similarly, being in the EU means that we will lose some arguments, and sometimes feel pushed in directions which we don't feel comfortable with, but the overall benefits outweigh this, even if they’re not always immediately noticeable. Pooling sovereignty works at an individual level as well as a national and supra-national level, and is nothing to resent

So the message to Leave voters should be that it’s OK to be annoyed about your partner leaving the top off the toothpaste, or not doing the washing up, or coming home late, but don't use these as a reason to divorce them. To stretch the metaphor a bit, it’s also sensible to pause before taking the final step and think if this is something we really want to do, in the way that there is time after issuing a decree nisi for both parties to consider before the decree absolute is granted. A People’s Vote with the option to Remain should be the vehicle for this

In the end, it’s better to be in some type of relationship, and occasionally annoyed by our partner, wider family or other social group, instead of being the reluctant divorcé(e) sitting at home with our newly-gained independence, wondering just what happened to our life, family and friends.

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